Leon Daniels OBE: From on the buses to the Olympics
iMOVE sat down with Leon Daniels, former Head of Surface Transport at Transport for London, to chat about his career, and his thoughts on transport particularly as pertaining to what’s happening, or not happening, in Australia.
Where are you working now, and what do you do?
After over 40 years in transport and most recently 7 years heading Surface Transport within Transport for London I have recently retired and become busier than ever!
I now have my own consultancy business, Leon Daniels and Associates, working with and advising and Governments, agencies and companies including FiveAI, Binswood Media, (iMOVE partner) Cubic Transportation Systems, and Optibus.
How did you gravitate to working in the transport field?
By complete accident. I was working in publishing and my employer had a real interest in vintage vehicles. He moved from weekend do-it-yourself preservation to major commercial restorations and I was caught in the slipstream!
So I was working for this publisher which had Old Motor as one of its titles. The owner was the pioneer commercial vehicle preservationist in this country. He came back from the USA where he saw first-hand how they use real money to do professional restorations, rather than what we do in the UK, which is to mess about on a Sunday trying to keep pace with the deterioration caused by weather!
We went out to find sponsorship and found Johnnie Walker. Its sponsorship paid for the restoration of a 1930s London bus which then entered service on a London Transport tourist bus route. Yes the private sector was running bus routes over a decade before privatisation!
This business continued to develop. London Transport had a severe staff shortage at the time, and we found ourselves doing more and more ’non-core’ work. Sadly the publisher died unexpectedly and complications from the estate meant the business struggled on only for a short time before it had to close.
But I had been bitten by the idea of commercial sponsorship. But not for vintage vehicles, but instead using modern buses as mobile 48 sheets (there are no such advertising sites in Central London due to planning regulations. Piccadilly Circus is about it!).
I then moved to starting my own tourist bus company using modern vehicles, each of them painted all over for blue-chip customers: Burger King, Barclaycard, Marks and Spencer, Tetley Tea, Beefeater Gin, etc. The advertising was worth more than the fares! In due course this expanded sufficiently for me to sell it into a bigger business as the growth was stretching what my mortgage could stand! Then in the mid-1980s London Transport started offering out individual routes for competitive tender and we were successful in the early rounds. Soon the contracted bus company was as big as the sightseeing company.
Our parent company got into difficulties in the late 1980s so a slice of the business – the London Transport bus business – was sold off and I went with it to help with the transition. It was sold to CNT Holdings in Hong Kong – part of a diplomatic mission to restore relationships with the West. After five years it had done its job, and together with my management team I bought the business myself. We expanded it quite dramatically and so in 1998 sold it to FirstGroup plc for £23.8m.
Unlike most entrepreneurs I stayed at FirstGroup way longer than is normal. Few people like seeing a big corporate interfere with their baby. However, I stayed 13 years as the CEO at the time, and that immediately put me in charge of other areas of the business and away from my old company. As a result I was involved in the USA and Germany markets, and the national bus business in different ways, as I eventually moved toward the role of Commercial Director, UK Bus.
And then, a rather big move for a big event …
Yes. I might still have been at FirstGroup, but then I was offered the chance to work for Transport for London in 2011 and be part of delivering the London 2012 Olympic Games.
My new role was Managing Director Surface Transport at Transport for London in March 2011 and spent seven very happy years there working mostly for Boris Johnson, who is now our Prime Minister!
How did you go about bringing together the many, many stakeholders to make the London Olympics a transport success? What were the greatest challenges?
Just for once in our lives we were all stood on one burning platform, facing the same way and with no latitude on cost, quality or time. Every agency was focussed. We pursued a relentless attention to detail. We rehearsed numerous situations. And we bonded – frequent social occasions where we made friends and added people to our address books whose default answer was “yes”. Those bonds have prevailed as we learned we were stronger together.
From that Olympic exercise and experience, what are the greatest legacies? What changes / ideas / implementations have endured? Why do you think these have endured?
We put many of our young people front and centre. This was the experience of a lifetime and these young people are becoming our Directors and Senior Managers of today.
As public transport operators we also went and learned all about freight & logistics. A huge industry which shared the same licensing regime, used vehicles made by the same manufacturers, and who are as much part of our city as we were. Today in London freight & logistics has a strong voice as being part of the solution – not the problem.
In your time at Transport for London did freight traffic represent a large hurdle, or rather an opportunity to bring about change?
For sure it was a major opportunity. New friends: people with the same issues. Efficiencies, industrial relations, air quality, trying to satisfy demand. I am so glad that freight and logistics remain inside the Transport for London ecosystem despite no direct powers to regulate. A new meaning for any city contemplating a real integrated transport authority.
Freight traffic has had a bad press in London. The largest vehicles are banned in the CBD at night on noise grounds but in fact that means they cause more traffic during the day. The biggest growth has been as a result online shopping with significant deliveries of personal goods to CBD addresses. The other growth is food — London has had an explosion of coffee shops and metro supermarkets. None of them have any storage space so are being restocked several times a day. In effect their storage facility is on the road.
The logistics people have been quick to try consolidation to reduce the number of vehicles, and so update their efforts on safety and reducing emissions. A comprehensive Ultra Low Emission Zone is now in force. It will be enlarged next year and prices off anything worse than Euro 4 petrol or Euro 6 diesel. This affects trucks, coaches and private vehicles.
How difficult a push-through was road user charging? And how did TfL go about selling the idea to the public? How did it solve making the charge equitable (i.e. people perhaps badly served by public transport that were compelled to still drive?
Road user charging as miraculously driven through by the first Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who was elected with it as a manifesto promise. Bizarrely ‘Red Ken’ the arch left-winger who generally supports the state providing everything campaigned on charging for road space. His opponent the Conservative Steve Norris who generally believes people should pay as they go and the state stay out of it campaigned AGAINST it. The electorate was so confused it elected Livingstone who then surprised the electorate by actually doing what he said he would do.
It went through consultation and challenges but was launched in in 2003. It took 15% off the peak traffic flow and broadly made every day like a school holiday day. Ken subsequently widened the area but when in 2008 he was succeeded by Conservative Boris Johnson, now our Prime Minister, that extension was removed so we remain now with the original area.
The zone is the central business district only; the residents get a 90% discount but there aren’t many of them.
The effect was so good that the volume of carriageway space liberated was removed — wider pavements, better urban realm, more dedicated cycling lanes.
What could Australian cities most look at, or learn from, in the way London has tackled shifting active transport up in priority?
Get strong political leadership. In London it gave us road user charging, cheap and plentiful bus services, and a major plank to deliver major air quality improvements.
Moving away from the real for a moment, to a hypothetical, with an unlimited fiscal and time budget, what is the one transport project you’d undertake that would have a quick, appreciable impact?
Having run the transport for the 2012 London Olympic Games, that’s as near to an unlimited budget and resource as you will ever get. Transport is the solution not the obstacle. Whether it is social care, lubricating the economy or getting people to work, transport is always the answer.
But you can do so much with a limited budget. Let’s take paratransit. People marooned at home, inevitably requiring health care at home, shopping deliveries, and companionship. For a fraction of the cost to society for providing this they can travel with dignity with their friends to places of social interaction – even the supermarket.
What work/projects are you most proud of to date?
Again I harken back to my time working the London 2012 Olympic Games. There was not once single car parking space at any venue, so all the spectators had to travel to venues by public transport. The Games family – athletes, judges, support staff etc – all came by public transport and no-one missed a single event. (Unlike in the London 1948 Games when the single Maltese athlete missed the whole Games!)
Other that what you’re doing now, and what you’ve done previously, is there something new, perhaps even a new field for you entirely, that what you would like to take on?
The older I get the more interested in the future I am. Maybe because I have rather less of it left! I am fascinated by autonomous vehicle developments. I am also dedicated to get people under-represented in our industry to play a major part. I recently spoke at the Women in Rail in Malaysia conference – amazing to see young Muslim women keen to join civil engineering and other male-dominated roles.
In the next 3 to 5 years, what in transport/smart city/etc technology are you most excited about?
Back to autonomous vehicles. Forget car ownership and forget traditional road space. Small autonomous vehicles can operate inside shopping malls, airport terminals and places like that, rather than just on what we presently call roads.
And finally, you’re coming Down Under to present a keynote address at the Transport of Tomorrow 2020 conference … what aspects of what Australia is up to in transport are you most interested in seeing?
I always love my visits to Australia – I was there twice last year. I very much enjoy seeing your efforts on air quality, the new tram line in Sydney, the main bus corridor tunnel for bus services under Brisbane CBD, and of course reconnecting with the bits of the old Sydney monorail infrastructure still in place!